Sunday, May 23, 2010

A Y Badayev - Bolsheviks In the Tsarist Duma

For revolutionaries who believe that there is a higher form of democracy than that of Bourgeois Parliamentarianism, what to do during elections is the sort of discussion that sparks intense debate. For the Bolsheviks in the years of Tsarist rule it was even more complex because the Russian Parliament, the Duma, existed only as a gesture towards democracy from the Tsar.

In this context the Duma was of limited power - but more importantly, it was seen by some on the left as the first stage in the struggle for the capitalist order, rather than the feudalistic Tsarism that prevailed.

Lenin's Bolsheviks took a principled position. They tried to win seats in the Duma, in the face of extreme hostility from the ruling class, but not for the reasons most other parties tried to do so. The Bolshevik candidates saw the Duma as an arena were they could in a period when their organisation was illegal, spread propaganda and socialist ideas with a level of immunity. Revolutionary socialist ideas were popular - tens of thousands of workers voted for the Bolshevik candidates, thousands of workplace groups sent messages of support - but it was hard to organise. The Tsar's police force ran an efficient network of spies, newspapers and publications were regularly seized. Socialists, Trade Unionists and activists were regular imprisoned and exiled.

But in an era when some were proclaiming that socialism was a future ideal, and the important political task was to win a Bourgeois Parliament like that of the West, the Bolsheviks recognised that they couldn't run the risk of sowing illusions in parliament. The key thing was to use their position to educate, inspire and organise the workers movement. This was made easier by the way that the Duma was stacked against the representatives of the workers movement.

Badayev was one of the Bolshevik deputies. His was a background in engineering and he was a longstanding Bolshevik activist. His account is fascinating for many reasons - in part because of his stories about how they evaded the police and how revolutionaries had to organise in an era when simply being discovered with a socialist newspaper could mean years of exile. But the most important parts of the book are those in which he describes how socialists can use parliament, or other elected bodies to raise the workers movement to new heights. Because it was legal to print speeches of the deputies, it meant that organisatins could distribute speeches by socialists. The deputies could become the focus of networks of workers - collecting money for strikes for instance.

Take the struggle for the 8 hour working day - a key demand of the workers movement in Russia in the early 1900s. The Duma and the Tsar was never going to grant this - it would have to be won by mass struggles and protests. But the Duma became a part of the battleground. The Bolshevik newspaper Pravda explained:

"Of course we do not for a moment expect that the Fourth Duma will pass this bill. The eight-hour days is one of the fundamental demands of the workers in the present period. When this question is raised in the Duma the other parties will be forced to declre their attitude towards it and this will assist in our struggle for the eight-hour day outside the Duma. We appeal to all workers to endorse the bill. Let it be introduced not only in the name of a group of deputies, but in the name of tens of thousands of workers."

As Badayev says, "the very failure of the bill could be made the occasion of further revolutionary agitation".

The deputies, despite their small numbers were very successful. They were able to strengthen and inspire millions of people across Russia, particularly with the work they did to highlight examples of workplace abuse or inter-workplace solidarity. Raising tens of thousands of rubles for strikes in far off Baku, shows just how much their were successful.

The rising revolutionary mood against the Tsar and against capitalism that took place in the pre-war period was curtailed by the outbreak of the patriotism that marked the start of World War One. The Tsar took the opportunity to clamp down on workers organisations, and the Bolshevik deputies were arrested. Even in those difficult times, thousands of workers took action in support of their deputies - a far greater mark of respect than many so called "workers representatives" would get today.

For socialists today, there is much to learn from Badayev's book. It isn't intended as a blueprint for organisation today. Nor is it really a guide for elected representatives. But it does show how socialists who do get elected can use their positions to strengthen the movement. It also shows the need for flexibility and organisation fluidity to adapt to changing circumstances. Over a hundred years later, we've much to learn from Badayev and his comrades.

No comments: